Guns made civil rights possible: Breaking down the myth of nonviolent change

A crucial part of the struggle's been forgotten: how armed self-defense protected activists from white supremacists

Published June 14, 2014 6:00PM (EDT)

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks at a Selma, Ala., church in January 1965.         (AP)
Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks at a Selma, Ala., church in January 1965. (AP)

Excerpted from "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible"

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
—Ella Baker

I have never subscribed to nonviolence as a way of life, simply because I have never felt strong enough or courageous enough, even though as a young activist and organizer in the South I was committed to the tactic. “I tried to aim my gun, wondering what it would feel like to kill a man,” Walter White wrote of his father’s instruction to shoot and “don’t . . . miss” if a white mob set foot on their property. If I had been in a similar situation in 1960s Mississippi, I would have wrestled with the same doubts that weighed on the young White. But in the final analysis, whatever ethical or moral difficulty I might have had would not have made me unwilling or unable to fire a weapon if necessary. I would have been able to live with the burden of having killed a man to save my own life or those of my friends and coworkers.

It has been a challenge to reconcile this fact with nonviolence, the chosen tactic of the southern civil rights movement of which I was a part. yet in some circumstances, as seen in the pages of this book, guns proved their usefulness in nonviolent struggle. That’s life, which is always about living within its contradictions.

More than ever, an exploration of this contradiction is needed. The subjects of guns and of armed self-defense have never been more politicized or more hotly debated than they are today. Although it may seem peculiar for a book largely about armed self-defense, I hope these pages have pushed forward discussion of both the philosophy and the practicalities of nonviolence, particularly as it pertains to black history and struggle. The larger point, of course, is that nonviolence and armed resistance are part of the same cloth; both are thoroughly woven into the fabric of black life and struggle. And that struggle no more ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 than it began with the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther king Jr., and the student sit-ins.

In some respects, black struggle took on a new character, as with legislative victory over segregation and new law protecting voting rights the main battleground shifted from the South to the politically more complicated North. SCLC’s efforts in Chicago failed. SNCC dropped “Nonviolent” from its name, called for “full retaliation from the black community across America,” and then faded into increasing irrelevancy. The Black Panther Party became dramatically visible on the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, where they suddenly appeared strapped in bandoliers, wearing black leather, and carrying weapons. In a manner reminiscent of the 1960 student sit-ins, chapters and some groups just calling themselves “black panthers” spread rapidly across the United States. Before the end of the decade, CORE officially declared itself a Black Nationalist organization, and across the country a dubious black political spontaneity mainly took the form of urban rioting.

Southern struggle had become romanticized—rugged, ragged SNCC and CORE shock troops bravely confronting white supremacy, especially police and mad-dog sheriffs. After the Selma-to-Montgomery march and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many thought that southern struggle was over, its mission accomplished, civil rights gained. Even that story, however, has barely been told; many of the southern Freedom Movement’s dimensions remain unexplored. That is one reason this book has focused on armed selfdefense and its place within a nonviolent movement. My aim has been to force a reappraisal of the movement and to open the door to new ways of understanding what happened in the South in the 1950s and ’60s.

One oft-repeated assertion about weapons in the 1960s was that their organized use increased the chances of massive retaliation by local, state, and even federal authority. That just did not happen, not even in Louisiana where the Deacons for Defense and Justice came closest to armed confrontation with police. There was no meaningful difference between white responses to armed resistance by blacks and white responses to nonviolent resistance by blacks. Where massive police force or state power was exercised, as in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, or in Jackson, Mississippi, police violence was not a response to either the use of guns or the practice of nonviolence; rather, it was exercised for the sole purpose of crushing black protest and demands in any shape. The Freedom Rider bus in Anniston, Alabama, for instance, was not firebombed because anyone thought it was smuggling weapons; hate and fear alone drove that attack, as they did the police-backed mob attacks against Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Montgomery.

Almost nowhere in the postwar South was there any significant confrontation between armed black groups and police, especially in the 1960s. Incidents like the one in Columbia, Tennessee, in 1946 were the exception, not the rule. But even there, despite the price paid for the veteran-led armed self-defense, most in the black community thought the decision to take up arms in the face of potential mob violence helped the community rather than hurt it.

Moreover, remarkably few shootouts of any kind involved organized groups, and those that did take place did not last long. Fear explains this fact. Few if any white terrorists were prepared to die for the cause of white supremacy; bullets, after all, do not fall into any racial category and are indiscriminately lethal. Wisely, I think, black defenders who could have opened up with killing gunfire usually refrained. In place after place, a few rounds fired into the air were enough to cause terrorists to flee.

Black defenders also knew when and where to abstain from using their guns. The key distinction made was between police violence and civilian violence. Violent police mobs, like the one that rioted on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, found it easier—or at least less risky—to target unprotected, nonviolent protesters. Protests like that on Bloody Sunday in Selma and the Selma-to-Montgomery march that followed were always tactically nonviolent. The very practical and disciplined black self-defense groups did not interfere with the violent, hate-fueled actions of uniformed authority in these instances. And although defensive groups were sometimes present at the scenes of such protests, as with the 1966 Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi, they did not violate the commitment to nonviolence of such leaders as Martin Luther king (although in many communities young people reacted to white violence during nonviolent protests by hurling rocks and bottles).

It is indisputable that nonviolent direct action in the mid-twentieth century brought thousands into the southern civil rights struggle. And it is incontestable that this eruption of protest was a huge factor in securing the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Because nonviolence so often worked as a tactic, it is somewhat surprising that so few participants in the Freedom Movement embraced it as a way of life. But nonviolence has always been much more demanding and difficult than violence—and although it is a beautiful idea, perhaps in the end, it is not one that can be realistically expected to be widely embraced. yet the notion of nonviolence is certainly relevant in an increasingly coarse society that today is spiraling into violence to such a degree that carrying concealed weapons, including guns, has become acceptable in many parts of the country, as has the right to kill an unarmed person deemed “threatening” in manner or clothing. Furthermore, although the country more or less celebrates the nonviolent southern civil rights movement—whether according to Mohandas Gandhi’s strict tenets or in Martin Luther king Jr.’s somewhat less stringent manner— nonviolence itself has yet to find a path into U.S. culture in any significant way; for the most part it has had no impact on the current conversation about what America should be.

What amounts to abandonment or walking away from nonviolence’s demonstrable history of success is especially noticeable in the many beleaguered inner-city neighborhoods blighted by unprecedented levels of violence—especially gun violence. Although nonviolence was crucial to black struggle in the twentieth century, it can be argued that violence on a scale much larger than ku klux klan terrorism is the greatest problem facing many black American communities today.

Part of this problem is the relative silence and inaction of black leadership when it comes to addressing the nightmare of violence in so many black and minority communities. Many of the most prominent black leaders live in upper-class neighborhoods—some black, some white—that are largely free of the pressures found in public housing projects and workingclass communities. That these leaders now enjoy the comfort and pleasures their elevated status gains them is normal—welcome progress, in one sense. But if there is any place where voices committed to nonviolence need to be continually raised, surely it is in the poorest black and minority communities, where violence and the values surrounding violence—most disturbingly retaliation—are a routine part of everyday life.

In a February 2012 New York University Law Review article, James Forman Jr. (son of SNCC leader Jim Forman) has drawn our attention to one important way violence in these communities wreaks long-term havoc and needs attention. “The same low-income young people of color who disproportionately enter prisons are disproportionately victimized by crime. And the two phenomena are mutually reinforcing.” Mandatory sentencing and the disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans and Latinos for low-level drug crimes is outrageous and is rightly protested. But what needs much more focus is the fact that in state prisons especially, many are jailed for violent crimes—people of color killing or trying to kill people of color.

We have also become more warlike as a nation, and as individuals. Regardless of race or social status, we are now more likely than we once were to settle arguments or react to frustration with violence. yet despite the sobering and alarming implications of this growth in violence, public discourse about nonviolence, and thus discourse about effectively confronting violence, has lessened since the 1960s. Despite the very good work of groups like the Cure Violence partnerships, which treat violence like a disease, we do not see much nonviolent grassroots effort in America’s most violence-wracked communities.

To be fair, there is more under way than is recognized. Notes Maria Varela, who was part of SNCC’s field staff in the 1960s and whose later work organizing in rural communities in New Mexico and the Southwest gained her a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant, “There are many innercity communities where individuals work to keep the peace on the block. There is work going on in rural communities and within Native Nations to defuse violence and suicide. But these people and these organizations
aren’t considered ‘newsworthy.’”

Over the years, former SNCC field secretary Ivanhoe Donaldson, like most of us who were deeply involved in the southern struggles, has given a great deal of thought to violence and nonviolence:

We are a very violent culture. In fact, human beings are violent by nature—they are born into violence and they live in violence all their lives, either running from it, hiding from it, or participating in it. . . . The reality though, is that violence never changes anything. It does cause realignments of power and authority. [And] it’s always unclear as to how [violence will] shape the future. Here in America we have all of these nuclear weapons, and in China they have all of these nuclear weapons. So do other nations. We all have the capacity to blow each other to kingdom come. One day somebody is going to do just that. It’s the nature of the beast.

Economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell is not someone I often agree with, but an observation he made in 2013 during the height of Egyptian violence resonates with Ivanhoe Donaldson’s gloomy outlook:

It would certainly be a lot nicer if everyone laid down their guns and just sat down together and worked things out peacefully. But has anyone forgotten that, for centuries, Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other and tried to wipe each other out? Only after the impossibility of achieving that goal became clear did they finally give it up and decide to live and let live.

Some groups have succeeded in chipping away at urban violence—organizations like the Gathering for Justice, a group of young people from around the nation brought together by Harry Belafonte; the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, founded by Bernard Lafayette, who travels the United States and the world conducting nonviolence workshops; Teny Gross’s Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, which works on the ground in Providence, Rhode Island; the Latino Dream Act activists; Los Barrios Unidos, working with street gangs in western states; and two groups most interesting to me because of their similarity to SNCC in its early days: the young Dream Defenders, who in the summer of 2013 sat in at the Florida governor’s office for thirty-one days protesting that state’s stand-your-ground law; and Moral Mondays—young people in North Carolina who engage in weekly protests and civil disobedience challenging that state legislature’s attacks on voter registration, Medicaid, and cuts to social programs. However, for the most part, nonviolence has never been the center of the discussion, neither during the 1960s nor since. As Donaldson notes, “It’s still always about the mission. We have never seriously taken on nonviolence itself as a concept of life. We talk instead about getting people job training, employment, higher minimum wage, education—all important, but there is no value training. We’ve never had a movement against violence.” And Donaldson is quick to add that he is not nonviolent himself. Like me, he finds that committing to that way of life requires a special strength, which he acknowledges he does not have either and was not brought up to have. But then again, he points out that a true commitment to nonviolence is uncommon indeed. “SNCC was very rare in even having a conversation about nonviolence as a way of life, but we survived because local folks stayed up all night protecting us."


And finally, all of these issues are lodged in a history we need to face squarely. This brings us to Ella Josephine Baker, whose ideals infuse this book and who was one of the great figures of twentieth-century social change. In 1960, she made her way to the young people like myself who were teething as political activists on sit-ins challenging segregation. She was fifty-seven years old then; we were mostly in our late teens and early twenties. yet despite our differences in age, Miss Baker—as many of us usually addressed her—recognized that the youth-led movement springing from black colleges, universities, and high schools was a significant and creative development in the civil rights struggle. In truth, we ourselves barely realized this at the time; in fact, we did not know very much at all. She was patient with us, however, and among the many valuable things she taught us was that understanding history is essential and liberating:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. That means we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is, in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. . . . I am saying as you must say too, that in order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.

In writing this book, I have attempted to record a history as Miss Baker spoke of history. In order for it to be as useful as possible, I have tried to present something more than a personal narration of my experiences. An understanding of history is what I hope to have imparted to readers, and that is more than understanding Charlie Cobb’s experiences.

Nowhere is the need to embrace Ella Baker’s instruction on the necessity of understanding history more evident than with the mid-twentieth-century Freedom Movement that spread across the South. Many aspects of that movement are neglected and misconstrued and are thus in need of much more thorough examination. It is especially critical to understand, as I hope readers do by now, that the southern Freedom Movement was not simply a movement of dramatic, mass protests led by charismatic leaders but a movement of grassroots organizing in rural communities—barely visible work in southern backcountry, dangerous work punctuated by awful violence that included murder. But this work gained significant ground nonetheless, not only securing civil rights long denied to black people but also affecting the entire United States in some importantly progressive ways.

Conventional scholarship has emphasized the national dimension of the freedom struggle; it defines the southern movement primarily as a story of prominent leaders whose main objective was to obtain federal civil rights legislation. Although national legislation was undeniably important, such scholarship—as well as typical media depictions of the civil rights movement—has focused popular memory on iconic figures and moments at the expense of the thought and structures of day-to-day Freedom Movement actions at the grassroots level. And this narrow focus has contributed to much misunderstanding, as well as to considerable distortion of what took place and why. Martin Luther king Jr., for example, has largely been reduced in the public mind to the “I Have a Dream” speech; Stokely Carmichael has been simplified into an angry “militant” whose June 1966 Black Power speech suddenly came out of nowhere and destroyed the “good” movement of love and nonviolence.

Central to much of this mainstream narrative is that the moral splendor of long-suffering blacks persuaded the nation’s leaders to sympathize with civil rights legislation. Although black people sometimes manifested impatience or exerted political pressure on these leaders, the conventional narrative goes, they rarely evinced anger at Jim Crow or white-supremacist dominance. NAACP chairman emeritus Julian Bond, who in the 1960s was communications director for SNCC, summarizes this narrative with ironic simplicity: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up; and then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” This simplistic and conventional understanding of the civil rights movement, however, neglects the many complexities and tensions that defined the movement and that ultimately contributed to its success. One example of this can be found in Bernice Johnson Reagon’s criticism of the scholarship that has come to define what took place in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. As a student at Albany State College in 1961, she was active in the freedom struggle. yet, she says, “When I read about the Albany Movement, as people have written about it, I don’t recognize it. They add up stuff that was not central to what happened.” Most scholars have declared the Albany Movement a failure and see the city’s black activists as having been outwitted by a smart, sophisticated police chief. This version of that city’s movement history stems from Reverend king and his SCLC associates, who declared that movement efforts in Albany had failed. They saw the Albany Movement as their movement. “The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it,” king reflected in a January 1965 interview. “Our protest was so vague we got nothing and the people were left very depressed and in despair.”

To Reagon and many others in Albany, however, this interpretation suggests an almost complete misunderstanding of what happened there. There was nothing vague about the changes they wanted, and there is nothing vague about what they feel they gained. After all, it was their movement, not Reverend king’s or SCLC’s movement. What defines the movement that the people of Albany fashioned cannot be reduced to protest and —notwithstanding whatever king may have thought constituted “victory”—Albany was significantly changed by their struggle. It “gave me the power to challenge any line that limits me,” Bernice Reagon says. “[It] really gave me a real chance to fight and to struggle and not respect boundaries that put me down.” Or, as A. C. Searles, editor of the Southwest Georgian, a weekly black newspaper, put it in 1970: “What did we win? We won our self-respect. It changed my attitudes. This movement made me demand a semblance of first-class citizenship.”

A central determinant of how we understand history is whether it is framed from the bottom up or the top down. History framed from the bottom up tends to be viewed suspiciously by the academy, and it is more difficult to grasp because of the relative invisibility of its main actors and their thinking. Fortunately, this is slowly changing. A growing body of work is challenging the traditional top-down approach to the history of the Freedom Movement and making us better able to recognize the thinking that shaped the movement’s decision making, actions, and events. Significant scholarship of this depth began emerging late in the twentieth century, pioneered by several important books: Richard kluger’s 1975 book Simple Justice, which portrayed the ordinary people whose challenge to school segregation forced the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision; William H. Chafe’s 1980 work on the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins, Civilities and Civil Rights; Clayborne Carson’s 1981 work, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening in America; Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the king years; and the books by John Dittmer and Charles M. Payne—Local People and I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, respectively—on Mississippi’s movement. And as a guide for negotiating the post–Civil War currents of black history in the United States, Vincent Harding’s thorough and beautifully written 1981 book There Is a River is essential text.

Such scholarship is being continued in the current work of such scholars as Emilye Crosby, Hasan kwame Jeffries, Wesley Hogan, Francois Hamlin, and Akinyele Umoja. What they have written helps us see with greater clarity the various levels of local leadership that gave the southern movement its power and authority, what Charles Payne has described as “sustained courage” at the grassroots. Their works also help us see how what can be considered Freedom Movement culture continuously and creatively generated ideas that mainly bubbled from the bottom up.

Freedom Movement voices and analyses nevertheless remain noticeably damped in the canon. Although the activists and organizers whose ideas informed the movement’s work are quite capable of presenting the critical thinking underlying their actions, it is extremely difficult for most of them to get access to the avenues that could make their thoughts and analysis widely available. Far too often and in far too many places, movement veterans are considered insufficiently credentialed to merit academic appointment, or they are thought incapable of writing credible works that go beyond memoir in presenting for public consumption and understanding what they envisioned, launched, and sustained. Even worse, there is no appreciation of their sense of history—of how their understanding of the historical circumstances surrounding black life influenced the choices they made. Their “stories” are sometimes sought out, but rarely their thinking.

This is an old problem. In his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass complained that William Lloyd Garrison and other influential white abolitionists thought that his intellectual growth weakened their cause. They only wanted him to “narrate wrongs, bemoaned Douglass, although after escaping from slavery “I was now reading and thinking.” However, if he did not have “the plantation manner of speech,” John A. Collins, general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society once counseled Douglass, “People won’t ever believe you was a slave. ’Tis not best that you seem too learned.” The abolitionist went on to tell Douglass with no small degree of arrogance, “Give us the facts; we will take care of the philosophy.” Historian, attorney, and activist Staughton Lynd, who was coordinator of the Freedom School program during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, believes that what is needed is “guerilla history”:

In the practice of guerilla history the insights of non-academic protagonists are considered to be potentially as valuable as those of the historian. Thus guerilla history is not a process where the poor and oppressed provide poignant facts and a radical academic interprets them. Historical agent and professor of history are understood to be co-workers, together mapping out the terrain traveled and the possibility of openings in the mountain ridges ahead.

As a journalist, professional writer, and sometime college professor, as well as a veteran of the civil rights movement, I have the advantage of having my feet in scholarship as well as in activist experience and sensibility. And so, although in the preceding pages I have paid attention to and the works of historians based in the academy, much of the “scholarly” material drawn on by this book is the thinking articulated by people whose minds and actions generated social challenge and social change. These activists rarely wrote down their thoughts and analyses of the movement they fashioned, nor are their thoughts and analyses given much respectful prominence in academic and mainstream media discussions. But their reflections are as authoritative as the interpretive assumptions found in refereed or peer-reviewed scholarship.

Although the words of these men and women need not—and indeed should not—be taken as gospel, my many conversations with Freedom Movement veterans have formed the intellectual spine of this book. I have diligently sought out their thinking, and not simply their narration of events; their minds and memory have been my primary archives. Full disclosure requires me to state here that many are friends and former comrades from my years as a SNCC field secretary. We are remarkably diverse, but we share a common language and sensibility whose roots lie in the Freedom Movement that nurtured us. The thinking and the work of that movement reflect what from generation to generation has been the common denominator of black life: struggle—disciplined, thoughtful, creative struggle.

Excerpted from "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible" by Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Published by Basic Books. Copyright © 2014 by Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Charles E. Cobb Jr.

Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a visiting professor at Brown University's Department of Africana Studies and a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

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